[Marxism] The absence of real forces [was: The low point]

Joaquin Bustelo jbustelo at gmail.com
Wed Aug 1 16:05:17 MDT 2007

Jscotlive writes, in response to my statement that it takes massive social
forces to really challenge imperialism, "Of course it takes powerful  social
forces, cohered..blah, blah, blah...but in the absence of such forces are
we to just sit on our hands and act as those spectators watching slaves
being  slaughtered in the Coliseum as Che described?"

Jscotlive here puts his finger in the open wound of the left in the United
States, the wound that will not heal: "The absence of such forces," i.e.,
the reality that there is no longer in this country, nor has there been in
the entire political lifetime of anyone active today, an actual social
movement of workers --even a minority of the workers-- as workers, as a
class. The most significant motion over the past decades has been among
Black workers, but there primarily in and through the movement of Blacks as
a people, a national movement, which are inherently multiclass movements.

Although I believe he is in Britain, my *impression* is that the tendency in
other imperialist countries is similar, and Jscotlive's response to this
situation is, basically, so what? "Are we just to sit on our hands and act
as spectators...? Or are we to attempt to challenge  the received truths of
the establishment, military and political, as much as we  are able."

By which he appears to mean a combination of "slogans in support of the Arab
Resistance, in order to help inspire their people on the front lines against
imperialism" and ones designed to "attract those motivated by material
necessity" within the imperialist countries, which sectors he defines as,
"workers, poor blacks, whites, immigrants." This, he says, "will and can
only be done by connecting the war overseas with the war on the  working
class and the poor at home. This is not being done to any large degree  at

I'm going to leave aside the obvious idiocy of listing "whites" as such in
this context, while limiting ourselves to targeting only *poor* Blacks. It
seems fairly clear that Jscotlive's fingers got ahead of his capacity for
careful formulation at this point, and what we have should probably just be
read as "working people and the oppressed."

Now, here's the problem with the approach of linking "the war abroad and the
war at home" on that sort of scale as I see it. And that is that most
working people --white folks especially, but not only-- do not perceive
themselves as being targets of some war. At least not in this country. (I
leave aside the ones that DO in the sense that "angloness" or "whiteness"
considers itself to be under siege from the brown hordes invading from the

There has been a tendency on the left in the United States for decades to
cherry-pick wage statistics to make the case that working people are under a
relentless and largely successful assault to drive down their standard of
living. I've argued with comrades on this list and internally in Solidarity
that insofar as the RESULT is concerned, it simply isn't so -- the standard
of living of working people has not, in fact decreased, it has increased.

Careful examination of statistics --especially per capita household
incomes-- to try to figure out what the life experience of typical
individual working people has been will show that from where most workers
sit, their standard of living has gradually improved. And overall statistics
about housing --square footage, amenities like central heating and air,
etc.-- number of televisions, radio sets, phone lines, cars, etc. etc. etc.
per household all confirm this general picture. 

It IS true that total wages and salaries as a percentage of national income
has steadily declined to pre-1930s levels, that economic inequality is at
peaks not seen since the "gilded age" of the 1890's, that many, perhaps most
entry-level jobs pay less than they used to, ditto wages in mining and
manufacturing and so on, that median wages have been stagnant for decades,
that consumer debt levels are astronomical, that economic insecurity haunts
working people in ways that were unthinkable during the post-WWII boom. And
all sorts of other bad things.

But working people in the United States by and large have adjusted, and my
impression is that something similar is also true in the other main
imperialist countries. In the U.S. certainly, DRIVEN by the constant
capitalist mind-fuck to "consume, consume, consume," working people have
reshaped their lives, expectations and social interactions to make increased
consumption possible, and the typical worker has more "stuff" now than s/he
did 10, 20 or 30 years ago, i.e. a "higher standard of living." 

Some of the ways this has been accommodated are really quite surprising. In
the main imperialist countries (and for the white/Anglo population in the
U.S.), the fertility rate has fallen well below the level at which the size
of the population can be maintained. A part --a significant part-- of the
ever-increasing consumption --again, DRIVEN by the system's imperative to
constantly expand-- is coming from the resources that in decades past would
have gone to raising members of future generations. People today are not
having as many children, a major factor in raising individual consumption

Looked at another way, the capitalist system's drive for ever-increasing
consumption has now set the socially-determined standard of living above the
level at which the population could grow or even remain stable. For many
couples, there isn't enough "left over" after the adults and perhaps one or
two children consume as much as capitalism currently drives them to, to
afford a second or third child. In this a big role is played by the number
of women who now work outside the home.

Given the way child rearing has been organized in the United States, the
withdrawal of a significant portion of women's unpaid labor previously
expended within the household is a major factor in the declining birth

There is a need for serious thought and analysis about these changes, which
I believe are fairly *generalized* in the leading imperialist countries, at
least on the level of declining birth rates. 

I know this is a fair distance from a discussion around concrete political
tactics in relation to the Iraq War, but I don't think this sort of
theoretical reflection is a diversion from those tasks. If I am right, then
the shtick linking "the war abroad and the war at home" in terms of falling
living standards is quite likely to fall flat on its face. Most working
people won't have a clue what it is that you're talking about, for that is
not how "the ruling class offensive" --which certainly has taken place,
although I think the left generally tends to exaggerate it-- has presented
to them. 

But my experience has been that even among those who clearly are under
attack --Latino undocumented immigrants-- the current level of
consciousness, even of those willing to mobilize, and even of the broader
layer of activists, is not that these issues are intimately interrelated.
You find that only among a narrow layer of very conscious leading activists
in the movement. 

Among the broader layer, a special obstacle to a fuller understanding is the
entirely correct (on their part) repudiation of the whole "immigrant" =
"terrorist" trope that has been such a central party of the propaganda
saturation bombing of the past six years in the United States. 

Of course, there are those of us who would say that because there is in
reality a war at home and abroad (imperialism being the system, not simply a
foreign policy option of the capitalist system), the Latino immigrant rights
movement in the United States, as such, is an antiwar movement. But I don't
believe spreading that understanding, which by its nature under current
circumstances will be accessible only to a very reduced circle of advanced
activists, is at all what Jscotlive was talking about.

It seems to me Jscotlive's position suffers from voluntarism. He is
determined to make a difference, insists that all of us should share that
determination. These are fine sentiments. My problem is that he is unwilling
to use the tools of a historical and dialectical materialist analysis to
illuminate where and what kind of activism might make a real contribution at
this point. 

And I don't believe this voluntarism is an odd, peculiar failing of
Jscotlive as an individual but rather something quite generalized on the
left. A mostly shrinking socialist left in the United States, organized in
various groups and through forms such as this list, circles of leading
activists in antiwar coalitions and so on, is engaged --IMHO-- in a
political praxis that I fear is increasingly orthogonal to the main lines of
political and social development.

So, for example, if you search the website of Socialist Worker --the
newspaper of the ISO, the largest revolutionary socialist group in the U.S.
today-- you will find dozens or articles expounding the evils of the Popular
Front and in particular of the CPUSA's application of it starting in the

But you'd be hard-pressed to find any significant analysis of the role of
the social/political wing of the non-profit sector in American social and
protest movements and among radicals. 

Yet, unless I'm wildly and insanely wrong about U.S. politics today, the ISO
competes MOST OF ALL with the non-profiteers for the allegiance of young
radicals, and with whatever imprecisions, oddities and fetishes, presents a
fairly coherent counter-perspective to that of the NPP (Non-Profiteer

But you could say the same sort of thing about Solidarity, or the Freedom
Road Socialist Organization, or various other groups -- that they tend to
present politics through the lens of the first half of the XXth Century. And
there is an obvious reason for this. 

The politics of those years are quite accessible to a traditional Marxist
ideological/analytical framework. We do not have an adequate framework that
is widely shared, at least in its main outlines, that makes sense of the
political evolution and trends in the United States after World War II. 

I think it is accurate to say that the central protagonist for social change
in traditional Marxism is the working class, which gradually becomes
politically conscious and engenders what we today would call a "social
movement," and then with the rise of imperialism this movement
differentiates between opportunist (reformist) and revolutionary wings,
which then go on to battle it out politically for decades.

Now that narrative is insufficient. The problem we face --and that we've
faced for decades-- is not the triumph of opportunism in the workers
movement, but the disappearance of a workers movement as such, as a social
movement, what Marx calls a "class for itself." 

Instead, the most visible and dramatic motor of change on a world scale
became the anticolonial struggles of the Third World (including by oppressed
peoples within imperialist countries, for example, of Blacks within the
United States), national movements but of a type radically different from
those analyzed by Marxists before WWI, because these are movements evoked by
imperialist domination (indeed, some of the nations involved have been
created by arbitrary imperialist imposition of a common oppression, for
example, slavery of Africans and their descendants in the U.S., or
line-drawing on maps in Africa and the Middle East). 

It is quite obvious that different social classes find expression in and
through these movements, and there is a class struggle that takes place
within them -- but on the terms of the national movement. That is
significant because it means national movements are not easily reducible to
class merely presenting in a different form. On the contrary, the class
struggle within these national movements instead is quite susceptible to
"national reductionism," for example, the expropriation of the Cuban
capitalists, which was motivated not primarily by this being an EXPLOITING
class but rather an ANTI-NATIONAL one.

Now, the counterpart to these national movements is imperialism, and within
the main imperialist countries we see a stabilization of capitalism and a
degree of bourgeois ideological-political hegemony that was previously
unheard of and with it the disappearance of the working class movement, even
as a minority movement within the population of wage workers.

Enough time has now gone by --way more than enough-- and my impression is
that these tendencies I describe drawn from the U.S. experience also
manifest strongly in other imperialist countries, that all sorts of
explanations that in decades past seemed plausible need to be discarded. 

Anything that says that the situation we face is an unusual, anomalous,
exceptional, peculiar, unstable, momentary situation has to go. The idea
that this is not really what capitalism is like, these aren't the real
social and political conditions that are likely to prevail in places like
the U.S., Britain, Japan, etc.; that this is some sort of parenthesis of
detour caused by Stalinism and the post-WWII boom (roughly the "official"
SWP (USA) theory in the 70's), given where we are today, six decades after
the end of the post-WWII strike wave and nearly two decades after the fall
of the Berlin Wall, all such theories and explanations have to be discarded.
The fact is this is "normal" capitalism in imperialist countries in our day
and age. Our theory needs to account for that.

The other side of where we are is with U.S. imperialism in a war of colonial
occupation which it is losing despite overwhelming military superiority over
the insurgents. Moreover, I don't believe ANY Marxist in the U.S.
anticipated anything like the resistance that the U.S. occupation of Iraq
has evoked. Wars of aggression against colonial and semicolonial countries
by groups of imperialist countries with the support or acquiescence of the
rest also are party of the normal functioning of the system.

For however much longer a political situation along the general lines of the
last few decades will prevail in the U.S. (and, again my impression is that
the same tendencies are at work in other imperialist countries) we need to
accept it and try to understand it. I do not believe a merely
political/ideological analysis about the victory of opportunism (either in
Stalinist or Social Democratic garbs) is sufficient given the scale and
scope of the debacle. The underlying material reasons for the triumph of
"the bourgeois labor party" (opportunism) followed by the increasing
liquidation of the "labor" remnants of that wing of the bourgeois parties
needs to be as thoroughly understood as Marxists of the 1800s understood why
there was an inherent tendency among the proletarians of those days to
constitute themselves as a class-political movement.

And we need most of all to develop a sense of time and place with some depth
and breadth to it. 

This is a re-examination that should start with no presumptions. It is not
necessarily true that it is given to us at this time the capacity to develop
a mass antiwar movement. It is not necessarily true that the most
significant contribution to the defeat of the imperialist occupation to come
from the United States or Britain at this time is such a movement. We must
stop thinking in terms of historical analogies and think instead in terms of
historical processes.

We need to grapple with some pretty serious issues.

For example, I do not believe that socialists --and most of all in the
United States-- should offer or promise a significant, generalized increase
in the "standard of living" of working people in this country as that is
generally conceived today. I don't think it is responsible and I don't think
it is realistic. The U.S. standard of living is maintained through
imperialism's exploitation of the whole world and a disproportionate (and
extremely wasteful) consumption of the world's resources. "Elevating" the
rest of the world to U.S. or other imperialist country levels of consumption
is simply not realistic -- the world is a finite, bounded place, and the
biosphere on which we depend is an extremely thin crust of this small

My suspicion is that some of the most important work to be done now is in
the theoretical sphere and in practical activity whose main contribution
will be that it helps break new theoretical ground.


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